Fears of long war in Gaza as new chapter opens and ‘intense fighting’ eases off

Bethan McKernan

The Observer  /  July 6, 2024

Israel’s ground offensive is nearing its conclusion amid the threat of indefinite occupation and a continuing insurgency.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the phase of “intense fighting” against Hamas in Gaza is coming to an end, but with no publicly unveiled plans for the next stage of Israel’s campaign, Palestinians and Israelis alike fear that the unfolding ­chapter in the conflict could amount to a long period of insurgency-style warfare and indefinite occupation.

Israel’s generals are expected to announce soon that the last main ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, in the southernmost city of Rafah, is over, although the prime minister has made clear that the war will not end until Israel achieves “total victory”, which he defines as the complete eradication of Hamas as a civilian and military entity.

However, nine months into a campaign meant to have ended by January, several of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) declared objectives remain unfulfilled and new fighting continues to erupt in areas supposedly under Israeli military control.

At least 16 people were reported killed in an Israeli strike on a school in central Gaza yesterday, the Palestinian health ministry said. It claimed the attack on the school in Al-Nuseirat, said to have been sheltering displaced families, also left more than 50 people wounded. Israel’s military said it targeted ­gunmen operating in the vicinity, after taking precautions to minimize risk to civilians.

Although both sides indicated tentative progress last week, ceasefire and hostage release talks have repeatedly stalled. Despite huge domestic and international pressure, the Israeli government is still to release details of its postwar proposals for Gaza. One Israeli observer briefed on the plans described them as “fantasies”.

“None of the scenarios Netanyahu and his people have put forward so far are serious. The only conclusion we can draw is that he is trying to buy time,” said Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “Netanyahu does not want to end the war for his own political reasons.”

Public statements from Israeli officials and leaked details suggest that two army divisions will remain in Gaza in the third part of Israel’s war plan.

One will be posted on the newly created Netzarim corridor that bisects the northern and southern halves of the strip, preventing residents of Gaza City returning to their homes. The other will be based on the Philadelphi corridor, along the border between Gaza and Egypt, in order to shut down Hamas’s main lifeline – the extensive tunnel network and smuggling routes in the area.

These troops will have the task of launching frequent raids on suspected Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets across Gaza, a strategy known as “mowing the grass” already employed in the West Bank. Israel has approached Arab states such as Egypt and the UAE to discuss forming a security force that could operate in Gaza after the war, although support remains tepid, according to regional diplomats.

The buffer zone between the separation fence and Israel proper is expected to expand to at least two-thirds of a mile (1km) in depth across the entire territory.

According to satellite imagery ­analysis by Gisha, a nonprofit organization focused on Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement, the buffer zone and two corridors of land expropriated for military use could total 32% of the territory. Areas illegally seized make up a lot of Gaza’s agricultural land, which is already insufficient to meet the needs of its 2.3 million residents.

Initial US-backed plans to bring the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority back to govern Gaza after it was kicked out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 appear to have stalled. After 18 years without elections, the ­authority lacks political legitimacy and its prime minister previously said it will not return to the strip “aboard an Israeli tank”.

According to the Financial Times, Israel is instead close to re-implementing a failed plan from early in the conflict – “bubbles” run by local people, such as respected elders, with no ties to Hamas. These vetted figures will administer aid distribution and, if successful, their responsibilities will expand into areas of civilian governance.

“Half a year ago this same idea, negotiating with heads of clans, ended with the execution of several of them by Hamas,” said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian studies forum at Tel Aviv University. “You can’t pretend you are going to dramatically change something when you don’t control it.”

For Milshtein, Israeli decision-makers need to commit to controlling all of Gaza for the foreseeable future, or be prepared to make a painful deal to end the war in which it is most likely Hamas will remain in power.

“I do not see any alternative to Hamas continuing to run Gaza’s civil sphere. I don’t know if we have the willingness or the capacity to occupy all of Gaza with boots on the ground,” he said. “There are no good options.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian